John Lawrence Russell was born on January 3, 1921 in Los Angeles, CA, one of five children; two sisters and two brothers. He studied drama and was an athlete at the University of California. In 1942 he joined the U.S. Marines and was commissioned as a second lieutenant assigned to the 6th Marine Regiment. He served as an assistant intelligence officer when his division was sent to Guadalcanal. He received a medical discharge after contracting malaria and was decorated for his valor in 1944. He met and married his wife Renata in 1943, a marriage that lasted for over 20 years.
He was fortunate enough to be one of those few actors who started their careers by being discovered. His tall, dark and handsome physique got him noticed by a talent agent in a Beverly Hills restaurant and made his film debut in 1945. He started his career in supporting roles through 20th Century Fox and later signed with Republic Pictures.
Although he mostly played supporting roles in westerns, in 1955 he was given the lead in the television drama Soldiers of Fortune. His costar was veteran actor Chick Chandler who appeared in more than 130 films from 1925 through the mid-1950s. Although the show attracted children, the adult following was very weak and therefore it was canceled in 1957.
In 1958, John guest starred in the popular western Maverick , starring James Garner. He appeared in two episodes Rage for Vengeance and Lonesome Reunion. That same year he guest starred on Cheyenne, starring Clint Walker, in the episode The Empty Gun.
According to an article written by Everette Aaker for Television Western Players of the Fifties, his role in The Empty Gun inspired Warner Brothers to create the series that would make John Russell a household name. He was cast as Marshal Dan Troop in the popular western drama “Lawman“costarring Peter Brown as Deputy Johnny McKay and Peggy Castle as Lilly Merrill.
Over the run of Lawman, he appeared in two Warner Brothers feature films. Yellowstone Kelly, starring Clint Walker and costarring Edd Byrnes.
He was also cast in Rio Bravo with John Wayne, Dean Martin, Rick Nelson, Walter Brennan, Claude Akins, and Ward Bond.
In 1959 he guest starred in an episode of NBC’s Northwest Passage, a fictional account of the adventures of Major Robert Rogers in the French and Indian War.
From the 1960s through the 1980s, he appeared in more than 20 films as a supporting actor. Three of these films were directed by Clint Eastwood and one being in the role as Marshal Stockburn (the villain) in the 1985 Pale Rider.
He parted company with Warner Brothers in 1962 when Lawman was canceled. Although he had achieved an excellent repertoire for his acting, his career seemed to slow down for a few years. He did, however, manage to get work in other westerns including Hostile Guns in 1967 with George Montgomery and Tab Hunter and Cannon for Cordoba (1970) with George Peppard and Peter Duel.
In 1969 John appeared in five episodes of It Takes a Thief starring Robert Wagner. These episodes were: Guess Who’s To Rio?, Saturday Night In Venice, The Blue, Blue Danube, Payoff In The Piazza and A Friend In Deed.
In the 1980s, John contracted emphysema and sadly passed away at age 70 on January 19, 1991. He was survived by three children.
In 1998, Peter Brown was asked what his best recollections were of Lawman, he answered: “John Russell, John Russell, John Russell. He was about as good as it got.”
Thanks so much to Leona, I can now add information regarding John’s children:
“Kim, John and Renata’s children were: Renata Amy, Shaunna (married my cousin) and John James” – Leona
(John was married to RenataTitus from 1943 – 1965)